Fifty years after the first moon landing, an American triumph that gripped the world, China marked the start of 2019 with its own lunar achievement. Chang’e-4, a Chinese probe, landed on the far side of the moon in early January, broadcasting – for the first time in human history – images of the cratered surface that faces away from Earth.
Chang’e-4 has been billed as a friendly explorer, the latest step in humanity’s mission to better understand and exploit the universe around us. But space exploration has always been about power. Beijing’s lunar feat represents the latest development in the space race between China and the United States – a conflict that will be “important to modern warfare,” according to a US Defense Intelligence Agency report released in January that identified China as a “threat”. The Chinese foreign ministry responded by calling the report “reckless” and “totally groundless,” insisting that China “opposes militarisation and an arms race in space.”
The space race is back on, and it’s no longer just about prestige. In February, US president Donald Trump signed a directive ordering the creation of a Space Force, a new branch of the military “to deter and counter threats in space.” Where space might once have been a frontier for international collaboration, China’s launch has made the stars a contested territory for military, civilian and technological progress.
“For the US and China, space is clearly a frontier of strategic competition,” says Elsa Kania, an adjunct fellow at the Center for New American Security who is studying for a PhD at Harvard University on China’s technological and military innovation. “In any future conflict scenario, the first blow could be struck in space.”
It wasn’t always thus. Two years before Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk, the United States, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union signed the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, an agreement designed to prevent Cold War anxieties from reaching beyond the stratosphere. Only nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction are specifically banned under the treaty – the scope developing other kinds of military strategy was left open – but it outlined the hopes for cosmic peace that went unchallenged for decades. China signed the treaty in 1983.
Since then, however, China’s technological ambitions have become astronomical, both literally and metaphorically. In 2015, President Xi Jinping declared that space exploration would be “an important growth point for our military”. Xi’s statement was prompted by the establishment of the Strategic Support Force (SSF) in the People’s Liberation Army, which brings together the military’s space, cyber, and electronic warfare capabilities – a structure unmatched in the west. “Beijing’s space strategy is part of a comprehensive plan to expand its power,” says lieutenant colonel Audricia Harris of the US Army.
One of the key assets of the SSF is China’s domestic satellite navigation system, Beidou. With 43 satellites already in orbit providing global coverage, Beidou, which translates as ‘Big Dipper’, is China’s alternative to GPS. Beijing plans to launch 11 more Beidou satellites in 2019, while GPS only has 33.
“These advances in Beidou mitigate China’s previous dependence upon GPS, which was seen as a potential vulnerability,” says Kania. Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the US Naval War College, also notes that “the majority of space technology is dual use, meaning of value to both the military and civil communities”.
In the domain of what China calls “informatised warfare” – battles fought over the acquisition, transmission, and use of information – satellites are pivotal. A 2018 report to the US Congress on China’s military developments warned that US satellites were likely to be targeted by the Chinese in the event of a conflict, in an attempt to “blind and deafen the enemy”. China sees this method as a “key components of conducting modern warfare,” says Harris.
The history of Beidou is not one of all-Chinese creation. Beidou’s development arose from a partnership China struck in 2003 with the European Union to help fund the EU’s nascent satellite navigation system, Galileo. The relationship was dissolved by 2010, but not before China had gained access to Swiss-made atomic clocks, a key component of accurate navigation.
Episodes like that, alongside the ongoing trade war, have hampered attempts by US and Chinese space companies to work together. In 2017, the US company NanoRacks, which promotes commercial space activity, launched the first ever Chinese payload to the International Space Station, in partnership with the Beijing Institute of Technology. But “the amount of cooperation between American and Chinese organisations is essentially zero,” says Chad Anderson, CEO of Space Angels, a space venture portfolio company. US regulations “effectively prevent US companies from working with Chinese companies, due to technology transfer concerns,” he adds, citing a Boeing satellite deal that fell apart in 2018 because the customer was controlled by investors in Beijing.
Protective policies have not stopped the Chinese commercial space sector from developing apace. While the US still has a much larger proportion of private actors working in space exploration than China, $336 million was invested in Chinese space companies last year, and the sector is set to be worth $120 billion by 2020. The first private space company in China is LinkSpace, which launched in 2014.
Wang Ruijing, an assistant manager at LinkSpace, says that they still have a lot to learn from American companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin. “At the same time,” Wang adds, Chinese companies can still “expand [their] competitive advantages” by investing heavily in research and development to set new standards for Chinese technology. But these advances are likely to be inextricable from the military, says Kania, noting that Chinese astronauts are members of the SSF.
One area in which mutual cosmic mistrust is stifling progress is the development of a space-based power station for solar energy, which could potentially be a constant source of renewable power for Earth. The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation has said that it wants to build a commercially viable space station in the next 30 years. Talking to CNN, Peter Schubert, director of the Richard G. Lugar Center for Renewable Energy, said: “the scale is such that Chinese-American collaboration would be the best path to success”. But US regulations prevent Nasa from working with Chinese actors, so while Anderson argues that “space is simply a place to do business,” he notes that national interests will have to be protected by military forces, just as they are on land and sea.
And just like on land and sea, the United States’ domination of cosmic exploration can no longer be taken for granted. The growth of private companies has led to more and more countries entering the fray – Israel and Indonesia both recently launched their first payloads with Elon Musk’s SpaceX. But with massive state, military, and venture capital funding, China is by far the biggest challenger to western interests in outer space – a challenger that is being met with unprecedented levels of cosmic militarisation.